Red Bellied Woodpecker, art by Isobel Gabel Nimtz“Why do bees make so much honey?” I demanded of Leo as I breezed into the kitchen this frigid morning.
“Why do birds fly so high?” he asked in return. Sometimes that man does not skip a beat.
“Don’t they-ay know, it’s the ennnnd of the wo-orrrld?” I trilled interrogatively as I opened the frigid door onto the frigid porch and snatched the frigid paper inside.
Refrains and verses might have been muddled stream-of-consciously, but who cared. The Out was cold, the In was warm. And we – how lucky could we be? – were IN. With the Herald and cups of freshly brewed coffee and no-one had forgotten to get the half-and-half.
Which was probably because it was an Audubon morning – brrrrrrrr – and Leo would join a dozen hardy souls to walk around the West Rutland marsh, counting birds and species and twittering intently when in doubt. And the night before Audubon mornings Leo is likely to soak some flattened oats to prepare his oatmeal in the morning. And one needs light cream for oatmeal as for coffee.
And the bees? Off the top of my head, they were lightly winter-dreaming around the queen in the shape and size of a quivering football (I can see Dave Fretz of Shrewsbury Laurel Hill Honey fame, measuring a football size lovingly with his hands), keeping her warm, protecting her, juddering lightly in their dreams, keeping their ownselves warm, the outer ones moving slowly in, pushing the inner ones out for their turn to cool down. Nipping a little high-energy honey from their stores to keep them going.
I would love to join the birders, but I have a morning meeting and I will wait till Leo’s gone and take his leftover oatmeal and sprinkle it with sea salt, side it with a scoop of plain, whole yogurt, and drizzle it with a spoonful of honey, just getting going a little later than he needs to.
Mmm Mmm Mmm, very good!
Of course I like it the way Grandma made it for me, too – a sliver of butter in the bottom of the bowl, steaming oatmeal on top, a crunch of sugar over that, the whole drowned in cream. Though I never eat it that way now because I am convinced of the evil of sugar and refined flour, though the latter is harder to escape.
And why does he soak it? Well, because I related to him a fact that I gathered from Nourishing Traditions, that soaking grains makes the nutrients in them more available to the body and friendly to the digestion.
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, is a fascinating treatise on old ways, slow food, and the validity of ‘old wives’ tales’ and time-worn techniques. About grains, they write, “Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors and, in effect, predigest grains so that all their nutrients are more available.”
It’s the same with beans. For years I advised readers that unless your dried beans were old – in which case you should not be using them anyway – they need not be soaked overnight, that they cooked up just fine without it. Which is true, but soaking, again, neutralizes those phytates and enzyme inhibitors, and they are much better for your body as well as the noses and ears of those around you. So, I take it back – soak your beans, People.
There are many more such ‘truks’ of the trade of being an old wife or a cook (not always the same thing) in Nourishing Traditions, and it is well worth the (fascinating) read.
But back to breakfast. In my growing-up house we often had corn meal mush as a cereal, hot, and prepared just the way Grandma made the oatmeal – with butter and sugar and cream. It was a favorite bedtime snack of mine for years until I realized just how much ‘nutrition’ was contained in one bowl of the delicious stuff, and that nutrition was sticking to my hips.
Of course corn meal mush is nothing but polenta under a different and more appetizing name, and sometimes a different preferred grind of the corn. Which brings us to the subject of sweet and savory as regards breakfast cereals.
Polenta is usually served in savory ways, but it can also be cooked, cooled in a flat pan, then fried up in crisp squares in butter and served with a drizzle of maple syrup. Or honey. Or strawberry jam, for that matter. In that case, it’s much like Johnnycake, which is a moist cornbread served with syrup, usually – in my case – for supper. Rice that is leftover from a chicken dinner can be warmed and served with – yup, you guessed it – butter, sugar, cream. Or cook it fresh, in the morning, with plumped raisins, and you won’t have to use a bit of sugar. It takes 20 minutes.
Or there’s congee – a Chinese breakfast wherein rice is cooked with more water than usual – say 3 cups of water to 1 cup of rice – and served with various toppings which might include “tiny squares of crunchy pickle, slivers of greens, velvety cubes of tofu, tiny smoke-dried Hunan fish mounded up in a crispy, silvery tangle.” That was a quote from another fascinating book – a novel this time – called The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. Her chef also has at the ready, “peanuts, shreds of river moss, crunchy soaked fungus, and matchsticks of salty Yunnan ham.” I would add a drizzle of soy sauce, a drop of sesame oil. Young-La sometimes serves this at the Farmers’ Market at her Flavors of Asia booth, although I believe she calls it jook. Most Asian countries have their own version.
Farro is another grain to start experimenting with. It’s ancient, perhaps the earth-mother of our wheats and spelts and barleys. It needs to be soaked overnight, or for a couple of hours during the day if you’re having it for a later meal, and takes only 20 or 30 minutes to cook after soaking. It’s good any time of day, alone, with butter and salt and pepper, or prepared in a sweet way, I imagine, though I haven’t tried it that way. The Killington Ave Market and Deli makes a pureed cannellini bean soup with the chewiness of farro grains in it. I’ve made that and it IS delicious.
Note: This is a little off the subject of grains, but smack-dab ON the subject of KAM&D, and that is the best sandwich I’ve ever had. In my LIFE. It’s Porchetta on Focaccio. In Italy, where Bob and Becky first fell in love with it, a whole, small pig would be stuffed with herbs like sage and fennel and roasted. Bob takes a whole pork shoulder, butterflies it, layers it with caramelized onion and sage, rolls it up and rubs it with roasted and ground fennel and coriander. Next day it’s roasted in a slow oven for many hours. It’s left to rest overnight, then thinly sliced and mounded on a halved, toasted, olive-oil-drizzled flatbread with... nothing else! Sublime. All roast porkiness with a faint anise scent and flavor, on that crisp-tender bread. Man-O-Man, it is a revelation! They roast it on Monday and begin offering it on Tuesday. When it’s gone, it’s gone until the next week. I’ve got a pork shoulder in the fridge just begging to be treated in this multi-stepped way, but when I’ve done it once, I imagine I’ll leave all that work up to them.
Okay, more grains for breakfast. Mark Bittman cooks up some bulgar, adds flax seeds, coconut, sautéed tofu, fish sauce, scallions (click on his name for more great suggestions). How about fried up leftover noodles (which are a kind of value added grain, as is bread) with an egg on top, maybe ginger and scallions over that.
My food-writer friend John Thorne (Simple Cooking Foodletter) likes steaming fresh-cooked spaghetti paired with a fried egg, all mixed together, though, in his case, he craves it as a pre-breakfast, midnight snack. Quinoa is a really neat little grain, but to tell you the truth it doesn’t appeal to me just now as a breakfast grain.
Both quinoa and farro make great side salads or lunch dishes when you combine them with bits of cooked vegetables and bits of fish or fowl and dress them with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper.
One of my fave breakfasts is multi-grain bread, toasted, buttered, slathered with Vermont peanut butter, topped with really good horseradish, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I see you grimacing, but I tell you – it’s delicious!
A note on cooking grains. Most need a ratio of 2 parts water to 1 part grain. A little more water won’t hurt. Salt will bring out the flavors. If you’re cooking cornmeal, pour the meal into cold water and bring slowly to a simmer. That prevents clumping and lumping you get when you pour it into boiling water.
So do you need a recipe for any of these breakfasts? Nah, I don’t think so. Get on down to the Co-op (Rutland’s is at 77 Wales Street) and walk straight back to the bulk section and fill yourself some plastic bags with whole or flattened grains, and maybe a few smaller bags with spices and seasonings. Best-kept secret in town, that bulk section. You can’t find less expensive, fresher spices and grains in the world, the variety is great, and many of those grains have been grown right here in this little state.
Think Out of the Box; think of those buzzing bee footballs, watch the birds at the feeder.
This morning while Leo’s out traipsing around in the cold, spotting birds, I spoon up my oatmeal with yogurt and Philip’s elderberry/apple jelly and watch the birds at my feeder: the big Red-bellied Woodpecker visits, as do his cousins Mr. and Mrs. Downy and Mr. and Mrs. Hairy. Goldfinchs and White-breasted Nuthatches. Cedar Waxwings. Mr. Bluejay and he legion of raucous brothers. Titmouses. Whoa, Mr. Cardinal’s scarlet blares out of the green cedar and then I spy Mrs. Cardinal, whose browns and mauves I think are, if anything, more beautiful than his one red. We have a new little guy, and Leo tells me it’s a Brown Creeper.
I will not feel guilty at how beautiful life can be! The oatmeal is good. It could feed the world.
Rutland County Audubon Society at a Lake Champlain picnic.
Snow and ice were scraped from the table before sitting down.
Snow and ice were scraped from the table before sitting down.